Alarmel Valli’s Bharatanatyam… or Odissi? The forgotten heritage of Chokkalingam Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai, the “functions” and the VIP’s.

(this post is based on the report by G.K.)

If you thought that Padams and Javalis are reserved for the elderly, out of shape grandma’s whose only body parts that can still somehow move is their face (well, even this is problematic if there is half a kilo of fat under your face’s skin!), you should watch Alarmel Valli.

The evening of 28th was officially dedicated to the memory of Subbaraya Pillai, and the Shivagami Petachi AUditorium was fully packed despite the fact that the only announcement of this event was a small note in last week’s Friday review. As Mrs. Parthasarathy declared, all the city’s elite gathered that evening to watch Alarmel dance, and no parking space left in the school’s compound. How elite were the VIP’s could be seen by how brutally some rasikas were forced out of their seats in the first row, followed by even more embarrassing evictions of the lesser VIP’s by the more “senior” VIP’s. The fight for the first row seats reminds me of Subbaraya Pillai, who refused to sit in the first rows and was resentful of all these cheri VIP’s. Doesn’t Alarmel Valli gets annoyed while communicating with them? She probably does. On the other hand, just like Subbaraya Pillai, Nandini Ramani was seated in some 20th row on the 28th August.

Alarmel was indeed dancing well, as usual her dance was marked by midukku with liberal use of ottam adavus, light jumps, incredible coverage of stage space, a kulukku in her walk, talukku, an alakshyam as she flicks her wrist in the ullaasa nadai. Every slightest move was fully controlled and chiseled, lending it the artistic, and sometimes artsy, finish. Why Alarmel keeps doing mostly the same padams and javalis every time she does a performance in Chennai is bewildering. Anyway, she has changed her vocalist this time, and Savita Narasimhan was indeed singing with a delicate and powerful voice. Valli can afford to hire the best musicians, that’s for sure.

Alarmel Valli’s “style”, if we can call it so, involves the elements that few other dancers can emulate. The soft and delicate movements are alternated with the sharp, accentuated moves that are probably aimed at not letting the rasikas fall asleep. Every hand movements are supported by the foot movements. And every step is done to the talam. (Something that I very rarely see!). Every “simple” movement is meticulously elaborated into a super-complex set. I noticed that the number of bhedas (and the range of their speeds and amplitudes) that she uses is considerable greater than any other dancer’s. Priyadarshini Govind or Urmila Sathyanarayanan are nobodies compared with Alarmel.

Alarmel’s background in Odissi could be seen in very rich and complex torso movements (some borrowed from Mohiniattam!) that “normal” Bharatanatyam dancers forgot about thanks to the founder of Kalakshetra’s efforts. (Is this why so many professional Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai take Odissi or Mohiniattam classes , I wonder?) Another thing they could learn is how to control their eye lashes. Alarmel has mastered these to a great extent. Usually, people are not even aware of how they open and close their eyes. But it does produce a very powerful effect.

Mrs. Parthasarathy rightly observed that Alarmel Valli’s expressions do not cross that border after which they would turn into grimaces. I wonder how most of our other “senior” bharatanatyam exponents manage to produce so many ugly faces!

In the Yugame padam Alarmel Valli was portraying a miserable woman who was left by her lover. It was an attempt to depict a devotee’s anguish at the separation from the Lord. It appeared that Valli has had no actual spiritual experience that alone would lend this padam more depth.

In another padam Valli was attempting to depicting a mother who was coaxing her child to come and eat something. The child was supposed to symbolize the devotee’s soul who is turned away from the lures of the world. For anybody who has had this spiritual experience (if you had it, you can very easily recognize the other people who had the same experiences), it was obvious that Alarmel Valli has never had this direct spiritual experience, which rendered her padam rather weak.

Another padam that Alarmel did was about a woman who had an intimate encounter with her lover the previous night. This man embarrasses her in public by behaving in a rather rude manner. The spiritual symbolism here is quite obvious for anybody whose social life has been deranged by the direct spiritual experiences (if you watched Jim Carrey’s “The Liar”, you would realize how much a “successful” bharatanatyam dancer has to lie to reach the “top”). In fact, tears filled in my eyes, as the theme of this padam brought out the memories of certain realizations. The tears came before Valli started dancing.

There were no tears while I was watching Valli dance. The impression I had was like… While visiting some friends, I saw some nice fruits on the table, thinking that these fruits are so nice. On coming closer, I realized that the attractive looks were misleading: the fruits were made of plastic. Alarmel Valli’s padams and javalis are sometimes like the perfectly-shaped and perfectly-colored apples, grapes and bananas which, nevertheless, are of little value since you cannot eat them. These will not provide the sustenance for your soul’s spiritual hunger…. The artsy Bharatanatyam items have no real flavour, no taste, and are hollow inside.

If Amarmel Valli was a bit more open-minded and less proud of her achievements, should take abhinaya lessons from some 9-year girls. After all, Lalitha Sahasra Namam describes Devi as “Dhurga who is a nine year old girl” (not an old grandma). At this age, our abhinaya is not yet disconnected from our soul.

I always wonder why the “functions” are held before the end – not after – the performance. Had it been after the performance, the VIP speakers would surely face a very embarrassing situation with 99% of the spectators leaving before the speeches start. Mrs. Parthasarathy was again trying to promote her PSBB, stressing that many PSBB students are learning at Alarmel Valli’s Dipasikha. She did not want to embarrass Alarmel Valli by asking why in the past 4 years there have been just one or two solo performances in Chennai by Dipasikha’s students. Alarmel Valli brought one to dance in Chennai from… the USA, where Alarmel spends a lot of her time. Does she follow Subbaraya Pillai’s tradition and teach very talented students there regardless of how much they pay? She teaches only one-to-one, right? Business skills are not the only thing that Alarmel Valli learnt in America: about 5% of her movements (aimed at impressing the average American cowboy) clearly appear to be borrowed from artsy ballet and modern dance. That’s the application of lokadharmi, isn’t it???

Another speaker who was boring the rasikas was Dr.R.Nagaswamy. In his senile imbecility he referred to Chokkalingam Pillai’s relation with the 108 karanas. (There is no way Alarmel can do the more difficult karanas – unlike this young dancer). Why neither Chokkalingam Pillai nor Alarmel Valli wanted to talk about karanas is very simple: neither of them has ever known how to perform these. And the aging Alarmel is a bit too lazy to spend much time on getting fitter. Another idiocy that Dr.R.Nagaswamy was dwelling on was his idea of making a memorial in Vazhuvoor. Why this village has long forgotten anything related to Bharatanatyam is up to Chokkalingam Pillai to answer. Indeed, why did most of these village dance teachers left their villages and settled in Indian cities? Or American cities?

In a Sruti magazine’s article of February 2002, we find many revelations.

To the question, “I read somewhere that, according to a treatise on abhinaya, one of the chief qualities of a dancer is that she be beautiful…”, Alarmel replies, “I would like to think that for a dancer it is her inner beauty that counts. Take the example of the late T. Balasaraswati, one of India’s greatest exponents of abhinaya. I have been transported, watching her perform at 60.She could make you see her exactly as she wanted you to see her. If you looked at her, you would see a beautiful, young, charming girl of 16″.

The inner beauty…. well, even the ugliest K.J.Sarasa are very beautiful inside if they are famous, rich or powerful. Alarmel is quick to dismiss the ancient scriptures as nonsense, and believes that both Bharata Muni and Nandikeshwara are idiots as they believed that natya in its material expression is to be the expression of the physical body too. But when Alarmel has to choose between a politically correct answer (“when we describe beauty, it is inner beauty and aesthetics we are talking about”) and an honest answer.

Alarmel Valli still is quite sober: “Let me tell you something. Never take too seriously what dancers write! Even scholars are prone to make mistakes – not only factual mistakes but ones relating to interpretation as well.”

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Secrets of success of a solo Bharatanatyam recital. Learn how a Bharata natyam dancer can get a lot of fans who had no idea that Bharatnatyam can be fascinating. :)

Warning: this article is not meant for those who are doing Bharatanatyam just as a hobby. Only 1% of Bharatanatyam students have a chance to become real professionals.

While 2000 years ago people had very few options for entertainment, the age of TV, Internet and theme parks brought about the enormous competitive pressure. While they too are already successfully using the new media, the TV and the Internet, the Bharatanatyam dancers are facing a stark reality: their “art” (well, is Bharatanatyam just “art”?) cannot stand the competition as far as the entertaining aspect is concerned.

But Natya has two aspects: entertainment (desi) and enlightenment (margi). As far as enlightenment goes, Natya is beyond competition. The problem is, there is very little left out of margi in the contemporary Bharatanatyam…

Music

50% of your success will depend on your orchestra and music. That’s a lot!

If your vocalist can modulate his voice and produce intense and varied bhavas at least as well as Manasi Prasad or Unnikrishnan…If your mridangist can vary the strength of the beats every 2-3 seconds on a wide range and as fast as K.S.Sudhaman does… If you understand that violin cannot be a replacement for flute, and that veena alone is suitable for making many passages interesting…The reason that Saraswathy holds a veena (not a violin or saxophone) in her hands…

Can you afford additional instruments, such as morsing, kanjeera, tabla, ghatam, etc.?
If you prefer to blur your music in a jazz-like way Udupi Lakshminarayan does, add a keyboard player so that he would completely wash out everything else and destroy your recital. (Keyboard players do not have the same degree of control over their instruments as the non-keyboards, so the timing for each note cannot be as precise as in veena, for example).

The music arrangement is to be done in a professional way that would utilize the strength of each instrument in a suitable manner at the appropriate times. Even the traditional, often performed (stale) items, can be presented in a totally new fashion.

Do your items have only 3 fixed (flat) tempos? It would be boring! “Predictable” means “boring”. The professionals vary the tempos gradually and continuously (with lots of surprises) throughout each item, even introducing pauses here and there. And each item has to end in a distinct way.

If you want your music to be as good as Anita Sivaraman’s, Padma Subrahmaniam’s or Alarmel Valli’s, you may either go bankrupt or invest a lot of time searching for and training a good but affordable orchestra and the composer/music arranger. 😦

Topics & themes

The dancer has to be aware that the selection of the themes (mostly grouped by the rasas) and techniques (classified by the tattvas) for his/her items has to accommodate different types of spectators.

Natya Shastra tells us a lot. Here, we’ll give you some hints. :

The elderly like the tales of virtue and puranic legends.
The reason that 90% of the rasikas are elderly people (who bring their grandchildren along). Bhakti, Vatsalya & Karuna rasas…

Young people are pleased to see the scenes of love.
If your recital does not attract the youth, ask yourself what is the ratio of rati sringara in your items. Want to compete with the young film stars of Kollywood or Bollywood? Look in the mirror first. If your face looks like Meenakshi Chittarajan’s or Priya Murle’s, or if it’s as expressionless as A.Lakshmanan’s, don’t even try to do it. If your figure is Padma Subrahmaniams, people will laugh at your “sringara“. Know your limits. πŸ™‚

The learned want to see a reference to some religious/philosophical teachings
If the dancer does not understand these, there is no way he/she will be able to present these things adequately. In other words, if you are dumb, don’t try to interpret the mystic doctrines!

The seekers of money love the topics of wealth and its acquisition.
If you want to get rich sponsors at a corporate, that’s what you have to start with! There is a wealth of ancient topics that deal with it. Read the Artha Shastra.

The passionless want to watch the topics of liberation.
Shanta rasa…. If you are going to present your recital in an ashram… But if you are not even close to understanding what liberation stands for, don’t make yourself a clown.

Heroic people want to see the scenes in Rudra- and Jugupsa-dominated rasas, with combat scenes.
Not just the army and police folks. Well, hard to compete with the Bruce Lee movies! Why is it that whenever the Dhananjayans produce anything of this kind, it makes me laugh??? πŸ™‚
I have just imagined the 80-year-old Sudharani Raghupathi doing a combat scene…. Would put me to sleep… Snoring…

Common women, children and the uncultured men (murkha) are always delighted with the comic scenes and fascinating costumes and makeup.
Since this category is the most numerous, think of putting more Hasya scenes. Make sure you don’t look too ugly while laughing! Get a nice costume and learn good makeup. If you are a fat, clumsy and ugly dancer, that’s your audience.

Know your audience

Why nobody wants to watch us dance???? We are discriminated against!!!

Why nobody wants to watch us dance????

Do you know that most brahmins today are of the shudra type, but some (2-3%) contemporary SC’s and ST’s have the sattva-dominated nature of the true brahmin? 😦 Although Natya Shastra tells us that, for example, the cheri (inferior human type) spectators will not appreciate the finer art that is appreciated by the superior, uttama, spectators, this limitation can be overcome to some extent by mastering all the necessary techniques.

Techniques

We will classify them according to the main chakras:

Sahasrara
No faith (shraddha), no (spiritual) gain. If you have a divine inspiration and tejas, you may already be a saint. The problem is, saints are usually recognized and get popularity long after they are dead.

Soma
Here is the control over the Hasya.Β  The dancer has to be cheerful and even playful (the dancers with some Kuchipudi training understand what it is better). πŸ™‚ It has some connection with Medha (it’s not related to Medha Hari! πŸ™‚ ). Open this lotus and learn how to bring joy and humour even to the most depressive of the rasikas.

Ajna
If the rasikas are not paying attention to your dancing, think why one of the 64 vedic arts was “taking control of the crowd by mystic means”. It implies looking into the crowd of the rasikas in a certain way (they have to feel the “eye contact”). It is related to Drishti (something that most dancers are clueless about!). The more focussed you are, the easier you will engage the audience. Take some lessons from Barack Obama πŸ™‚ Don’t complain if you can’t move your eyes at will! 😦 Want to test your mental concentration? Close your eyes, try to dance and see how good your balance is! πŸ™‚ Oh, you still have the ambition to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer, eh??? 😦

Vishudhi
Music and voice (already described in more detail above). Bring good music (and make sure the loudspeakers are good). It is related to Laya, Vacho and Geetam. Train your voice and introduce your items the way Alarmel Valli does, and the success is yours. Before each item she establishes rapport with the audience. Remember, she speaks from the heart or the throat registers, not from the head. You can’t speak? Hire a good compere.

Anahata
Make your bhavas profound and intense. Be sincere, understand your characters’ relations and minds. If the audience are the refined rasikas in a small auditorium, don’t overdo your expressions! πŸ™‚ Remember: those miserable spectators came to seek for a spark of joy, so don’t overburden them with the tragic expressions!

Manipura
Do the brisk nrittas and difficult karanas. It’s about Javaha. πŸ™‚ If you are doing it effortlessly and irradiate the energy, it will draw the attention. Stamina problems? πŸ™‚ Sweating too much? The jaw drops every now and then? πŸ™‚ Look miserable after dancing for 5 minutes? Need to do kapalabhati, eh? πŸ™‚

Swadhisthana
If you are a woman, have you wondered why your recitals don’t attract men? Cannot do Lasya properly? People complain that you look and move like a eunuck? Ok, we have a hint for you. The people who are selected as “sex symbols” have the uncanny ability to attract the opposite sex. Hint: learn the sexy karanas and bhedas. Learn to move gracefully. And a lot more. See how sexy Alarmel Valli moves her shoulders and chest? Oh, look at the flutter of her eyelashes! Now, don’t you want to murder Rukmini Devi for popularizing her unisex bland Kalakshetra version of Bharatanatyam devoid of talukku, kulukku, alakshyam, midukku,or any graceful ottam adavus?

Muladhara
Purely physical things. How good is your angasudhi? Cannot sit in araimandi, eh? Cannot do atami? Cannot lift your leg? Do your fingers bend properly in all the mudras? How many hastas do you use, actually? (It seems there are 548 , but you need to do Alarmel Valli-style introductions for all these mudras, or else nobody will understand!)

You have to be beautiful, wear a beautiful costume, makeup and jewelry! πŸ™‚ Ever wondered why the scriptures have… errrr… certain physical requirements for professional dancers? :)In other words, if you are a woman and excel by your beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, you will not have to compete for attention! πŸ™‚